In Sync

In our Nature Notes section in January, Volume I, we included a picture of blood in coyote urine that was taken last January 23. Here’s a picture we took this year, on January 25, of the same thing. The blood is an indication that the endometrial lining in the female’s uterus is developing, and she’ll soon go into heat.

It’s not surprising that a coyote’s reproductive cycle, which takes its cue from the amount of sunlight in the day, is so regular year in and year out. After all, there’s a sweet spot when puppies should be conceived and then subsequently born. If they’re born too early, they risk dying from the cold right away. If they’re born too late, they risk going into next winter undersized and dying then. Thousands of years of evolution have helped determine the sweet spot, though it’ll be interesting to see how the changing climate affects things going forward.

 

Peace

We haven’t done a great job keeping the webpage up to date recently – our apologies for that. Part of my issue has been a long stretch of relatively warm and consistent weather that’s kept me away from a computer. Daytime highs came in between 29 and 39 degrees on every day between December 27 and January 22 in southwestern Vermont; this, coupled with low snow depths, made working in the woods irresistible. 

While the temperatures have been unseasonable, it hasn’t been worrisomely warm. As a sugarmaker, I’m always conscious of the maple trees in winter, hoping they have a proper period of dormancy before the sugaring season, worried about the root damage that’s a possibility in winter when there’s not an insulating snowpack. Where I live anyway, the temps seemed to have stayed on the good side of warm, which is to say the sap mostly stayed in the roots, and my guess is that the duff layer and minor snow depth kept the frost from burrowing deep in the ground. 

From a work perspective, it’s been a guilty pleasure. In late December, brothers Keith and Justin Severance came down to deliver a 4,000-gallon sugaring tank we bought from Reg Charbonneau, and we got it moved in to place relatively easily with some prybars and Yankee ingenuity. 

Over the last month I’ve been able to rebuild a major section of mainline in one of our sugarbushes, working without gloves or snowshoes. The plastic tubing doesn’t handle well in frigid temperatures, as you can imagine, but high-30s leaves it reasonably pliable. 

Whenever you rebuild you get a chance to do things better, and part of that often means thinning the forest. With the lines down I cut some ash that is likely going to die soon anyway from the emerald ash borer and become a line hazard. We’ll burn this wood next winter. There was enough frost in the ground to drag some logs across a wet area, but it was warm enough that I didn’t have to fight anything.

The weather started to change last week, when the snow came properly. We got about 3 inches out of the slush storm last weekend, but a lake effect conveyer has been dumping cold powder on top of it almost every day since – we’re probably up to a solid 12 inches in the valley, and up on the hills, where the first storm was all snow, depths are being measured in feet. I tried pulling the last few logs out over the wet spot yesterday, and promptly buried the tractor to its axle. Canadian air brought deep cold in last night, and when I tried starting a UTV to break a trail up the hill to the back reaches of the sugarbush, the ignition was frozen. Everything just gets fragile and miserable with the snow and cold. 

That’s alright – it’s good, even. Ecologists are always talking about how plants and animals need a period of winter dormancy, but the same can be said for people. There’s always such a rush in fall to get things ready for winter, and if winter doesn’t come properly, it’s easy to just not stop working. Here’s to peace and the chance to catch up on the things in our hearts and in our heads. 

Partnership

One of the things we love about this project is that it combines the arts – writing, photography, painting and illustration – and farm/forest work. And the partnership goes beyond what you see on the page or screen. Our books come in cardboard boxes – 26 to a case – and we’ve enjoyed hearing stories about the boxes being repurposed for maple syrup, or frozen lamb, or CSA produce. 

A second printing of the Almanac was delivered to Sunrise Farm Wednesday. Bob Sandberg, from the Sandberg Farm/Cookville Compost, came down in his compost truck to haul the books; he was out that way anyway on his compost route, which runs from Bradford to West Lebanon. Three pallets of books fit nicely between assorted compost totes. The poetics of the moment were nice, too.

Dispatch from Deer Camp, 2020

My father tore the tendon that attaches his thigh muscle to his leg in early October. He’s looking at about a year for a full recovery, so on opening weekend of November’s rifle season he was still very much disabled. My brother and I drove him to camp, raked the leaves away from the stoop, and guided him up the stairs. Once on the porch he was able to shuffle around all right with a walker.

These modern walkers are slick – they’ve got wheels and brakes like a bike. And you can set a parking brake and turn it into a seat, which is what he did on opening morning. We helped him get socks and boots on his still-swollen foot, and pull on his sweat pants which stood in for wool pants this year. When everyone else disappeared into the pre-dawn blackness, he took up a position on the front porch sitting on his walker. One of the things I greatly admire about my pop is that he’s not the type to wallow or make excuses. I think a lot of people’s reaction, were they unable to move one of their legs, would have been to sleep in and feel bad about missing deer season for the first time in fifty-something years. I don’t even think that entered his mind. If he couldn’t hunt in the woods, he’d hunt from the porch.

At about 7:30 that morning a six-point buck walked within 75 yards of the camp, then, inexplicably, turned and gave a shoulder in an open shooting lane. We all about lost our minds when we heard the gunshot. “Buck down” said the text.

I told him you couldn’t make a story like that up; no one would believe it if you did.

Bull Moose

This bull moose was videotaped in the southern Green Mountains on the second weekend of deer season. And it’s a lovely sight to see. Moose populations were booming in the early 2000s, but numbers have since dropped precipitously. The population estimate the state currently gives – around 2,200 statewide – is about half of what it was a decade ago. Biologists say that during the boom years, the population was high enough in parts of northern Vermont to exceed the land’s carrying capacity, and so part of the reason for the crash was depleted habitat. Another culprit was winter ticks, which are enabled by climate change. (Warmer winters means more ticks and a longer tick questing period.) Brain worm is another culprit; this parasite is carried by whitetailed deer and spread in deer feces, so as deer populations grow, moose populations suffer.

The state is currently conducting a radio-collared moose study which may shed some more light on moose and tick interplay. In the meantime, all healthy moose sightings – especially in the south, where populations were never that high – are great to see.

One Last Look

Our designer, Lisa Cadieux, and I went to Springfield Printing Corp. today to give the book a final look. I drove up Route 7A from Shaftsbury to Manchester, then Route 11 and 30 through the Green Mountain National Forest, up Bromley, down into Londonderry, then along the Middle Branch into Chester. From there I ran up 103 and right angled onto 10 to get to North Springfield. Lisa was coming from Burlington, so her options were more varied. I forgot to ask how she drove. Likely it was on the Interstate to save time and brain capacity, but maybe in the spirit of the book we both just helped build it was down 100, through Waitsfield and Granville, Pittsfield and Plymouth, the Mad River and then the White and then the Black. Or maybe it was 12 to 106, and Randolph and Bethel and Barnard and Reading and all those other little heart-of-Vermont towns. I leave you with the image of two people driving from their respective corners of Vermont and meeting in the middle at a Vermont printing company that’s been in one family since the 1960s. All of us working together to publish a book about life in rural Vermont. It feels very 2020 in a good way.

Vermont Almanac Welcomes Trevor Mance to the Board

When we make broad statements like humans have been amending soil for millennia, we run the risk of making history seem like one straight line. It also implies that we keep getting better at it, when the truth is much more complicated. If we look directly at the soil, then sure, it was great when farmers in the nineteenth century  started amending soil with bonemeal and guano. They were learning that they couldn’t take without giving anything back. But the big picture was awful, with guano mines in the Philippines being worked with slave labor and at least some of the bonemeal a byproduct of a market hunting industry that was driving wild animals to the brink of extinction. Today conventional farming relies on synthetic fertilizer, which is certainly a step up from a human being being whipped in a guano pit, but it still carries its own host of complications. The 10-10-10 pellets many of use — myself include — fertilizes soil without building it, so it’s a short term boost followed by a long-term depletion.

From where I sit, one of the more hopeful trends in the art of amending soil is compost, as we watch, in real time, this endeavor get turned from a backyard pursuit to big business. The whole promise of the industry is built on the common-sensical idea that if we take the food waste out of our wastestream, we can take a CO2-producing waste product and turn it into a CO2-sequestering product that builds soil. And while the history of ag, really the history of capitalism, warns us to be wary of big business, big business needs to be a partner in this if we’re going to make any dent in a global problem.

There are many reasons why we’re excited to welcome Trevor Mance to our board, among them his business acumen and vision. I can vouch first hand for his gifts, since as his older brother, I’ve known him his whole life and all but the first three years of mine. But in the context of the Almanac, it’s great to know someone on the forefront of the compost question. Trevor works for Casella Waste Systems, the largest wastehauling company in Vermont, as their compost operations manager. If he and his team, along with all the other players in the industry, can figure out a way to make large-scale composting logistically feasible and cost effective, then there’s the opportunity for landscape-scale good.

Vermont Almanac Welcomes Chuck Wooster to the Board

We subscribe to a USDA newsfeed, and so we get press releases concerning food that’s being recalled. Over the past three weeks there have been alerts concerning around 100,000 pounds of meat products, from taquitos and chimichangas that had hard plastic in them, to meatballs, chicken, and meat patties that were released without inspection, to an ambiguous near-17,000 pound jag of “meat” that was “misbranded.” (They forgot which company they were packing for? They forgot what animal the meat came from?)

Let’s be fair about this: If you look at the historical trend line in food safety in this country, it’s clear that the USDA and the packing houses have done and are doing a remarkable job in ensuring that the food we eat is safe. And there have been no reported injuries or sicknesses from any of the product that was recalled. In a sense, the recalls are an example of a system working. Still, the system itself is sobering and overwhelming. If the past three weeks are representative of a year, that would mean over a million pounds of meat will be recalled. The scale is so large. The players so ambiguous. (Ever heard of BrucePac? Hafiz Foods? Coco’s Italian Market?) The system itself just feels so disjointed, and overwhelming, and so divorced from the land, that it makes you stare long and hard at everything on your plate.

Virginia Barlow and I had the pleasure of walking around Chuck Wooster’s Sunrise farm the other day – we were there to ask Chuck if he’d be on the Vermont Almanac board. And what we saw there was an antidote to the sinking feeling I got trying to wrap my mind around the recalls. The chickens in the cooler at the CSA stand had, just weeks earlier, been scratching in the pasture on the hillside. We walked up and saw their replacements. Chuck and his crew are the farmers and the packers and the marketers – the whole food supply chain is on display for the consumers to see. They can also see how the farm is an integrated, circular system – how the land and the vegetables benefit from the animal manure, and how the animals in turn benefit from the healthy land.

It was a great visit, and Chuck agreed to be on our Board. Besides his many other talents, Chuck will be bringing real world farming experience and a vision of what healthy agriculture was and can be again. Having him as an advisor and a partner in this project makes the publication stronger, and we’re thrilled to add him to the team.

What a tail! Nothing like a gorgeous comet to take a person out of this world. Just after dark, just below the big dipper, in the northwest.